Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Choice is Yours

In America, when Africa is brought up in casual conversation or in a classroom, it is almost always associated with the deadly HIV/AIDS virus. Although our country has not yet eradicated the disease, it seems as though it is a very taboo topic that most people avoid discussing. Why is that? Is it because of embarrassment? Or because of what the disease is associated with? In Africa, Uganda, here, it is a reality. It is something that people are forced to deal with on a day to day basis and almost everyone that I’ve spoken to has had a family member, relative, close friend, or someone who has become a fallen soldier in the devastating never ending battle.

I have gained a tremendous amount of respect for those who are brave enough to attend a screening that will reveal their HIV status; to wait in line wondering if a small test strip will show one line or two, knowing that those results given within the next 40min will ultimately define their future and their life. What if you were given the next half an hour of your life to wait while your future was laid out for you? A future that will determine whether or not you will live or die? What emotions would you experience? Would you want to know the answer? An answer that would determine how many years you have left to be a brother, sister, mother, father, friend, son or daughter? And would you still be willing to take the risk knowing that if you are told that you are HIV positive, that you would become an outcast to society, lose your job, your family, your dreams, and face living on the streets because your parents would disown you? Knowing all of that, would you still do it? It’s a sobering thought.

I have seen the fear associated with it. It is reality and I have come to learn to completely respect the disease itself and those who join in the fight to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. They are my heroes; the people who know what they are up against and walk fearlessly and courageously into war and face the disease, regardless of the consequences, or their status.

Two weeks ago, almost to the day, a few volunteers and myself, partnered with a local clinician named Emmanuel to conduct HIV screenings at Lugazi University. We arrived just as people were beginning to file into the room to be tested. At this point, I hadn’t yet understood the serious cultural implications/reprecussions of the virus and was very focused on the work ahead of us. We had almost completed testing those that had shown up, when a gentleman approached me and sat down next to me. He was a young man about University (my) age. He was sweating profusely and spoke anxiously. He began to confide in me and tell me all of his fears about being tested. How do you console someone to do the right thing when you know very well that the outcome may be life threatening? I took a moment to collect my thoughts and to think about what I would want to hear if I were in his shoes. We spoke about the disease, what it is and how it is transmitted. We spoke about the importance of knowing your status to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS and the responsibility associated with doing your part. We spoke about treatment should he be HIV positive and the ways in which he could receive help. After the conversation, he nervously agreed to go ahead and be tested. As I walked alongside him I couldn’t help but feel like I might be walking him toward an unhappy fate. My stomach was in knots and my heart ached for him. I prayed silently the entire time that we were awaiting his results and tried to continue to lift his spirits with an occasional "thumbs up".

Delivering the results took longer than what was expected as the doctor really interrogated each person to ensure that they knew the seriousness of the virus; it was a pretty intense process. The doctor would say things like, you look nervous… Have you done anything that has given you a reason to come in and be tested today? At first I thought it was a little harsh to pressure people like that, but after sitting in and hearing some people open up to the doctor I understood that this little scare tactic was necessary to really help the reality of this disease to sink in. Daniel, the name of the young man that had approached me, was sitting in a chair nearby and called me over. We talked again at length about the danger and risk of HIV and the importance of taking proper action to prevent it.

Finally it was his turn to receive his results. He asked me to come and sit next to him as the doctor spoke. When it was announced that his results were negative, his eyes welled up in tears and he immediately reached over to shake my hand. He was all smiles and couldn’t find the words to express his joy and happiness although his relief was very apparent. As he was leaving he said to me “It is because of you… It is because of you that I was tested today”. He praised me for encouraging him, but of course I knew and told him that it was all him. He walked in that door and he made the choice to get in that line. I was so proud of him and really felt that from our conversations that he had a firm grasp on how to protect himself and that he was sincere when he smiled and told me that he “would run away” from any risks associated with the virus. He was so excited about his status that he announced that he was going to travel back to his village and encourage everyone that his voice could reach to be tested and recruit them to the cause.

49 people were screened today and all of them were found to be negative.

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